“We live close to the city. Moved to the area from Calgary five years ago.“ Colin responded with a broad smile and wiped the “espresso crema” from his upper lip.
“I disagree with you. Yes, it’s chilly in the winter. But it gets extremely hot during the summer. We hit + 40 C regularly.” I responded while I warmed my hands on a wide-mouthed cup, and inhaled the fragrant scent the almond latte was dispensing.
“I hear that when your dog runs away you can watch him for three days!” Jim was not going to give up, his comment was fueled with sarcasm.
His companion touched his arm. Their eyes met briefly before he tilted back his chair to break away in his attempt to assert his independence. He grinned defiantly and mumbled: ”There is a reason why the weather channel places the moderator in front of this province and skips from Manitoba to Alberta.”
Colin and I exchanged glances. “Do you have an hour?”
Jim and Andrea nodded. We piled into our blue Toyota Matrix, parked next to the coffee shop, and headed north. Moose Jaw is the geographical center of southern Saskatchewan. The city developed over time from a fur trading camp to a station site for the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1881. * The railway continues to provide secure work for many citizens, but tourism is the main industry.
We soon left behind the downtown with its century old brick and sandstone architecture built after the “big fire of 1890.” Red brick was readily available locally until 1916 and was the primary reason that put this city on the map. As we approached the outskirts near the Trans Canada Highway (TCH) we encountered the box stores and chain restaurants ubiquitous with any other town along the major artery that connects the country from east to west. The lack of visual attractions had us huddle quietly in the car. Soon we crossed the TCH overpass where Main Street North changes into Highway # 2. We reached the city limits, and passed a row of sixteen large grain storage bins on the westside of the highway. The prairie was in full view.
“Well?” Jim’s tone was confrontational.
“Jim!” Andrea hissed.
The afternoon sun illuminated the snow, emphasized shadows across the shallow peaks and valleys of countless snow drifts. Icy patches gleamed like polished linoleum floors, dried grasses cast long shadows and bull rushes remained steadfast and tall along the road ditch. The vast landscape was occasionally interrupted by small farms yards, protected by shelter belts. Small barns and grain storage bins broke the monotony along the road.
The radio dial was set to AM 540 CBC Saskatchewan, the one radio station accessible anywhere in the province. It presented a a welcome break from the Golden Oldies and Country Crooner stations in the rural area. Jim’s head was bobbing to an acoustic guitar piece. He appeared relaxed and was showing interest in the landscape, turning his head this way and that as we passed farms and outbuildings.
Andrea pointed “Is this a town?”
The village of Tuxford with its twin grain elevators rose from the landscape. From the highway the village resembled a fortress. White storage structures, backlit by the sun, stood tall. Several grain cars occupied the tracks along main street. Small homes lining the streets north of the elevators appeared deserted. Abandoned farm houses recalled memories of Tuxford’s glory days during the the mid-1900s when thriving businesses supplied surrounding farmers and their families. Queen Elizabeth II visited to have tea with one farm lady in 1959 during her cross-Canada Royal train tour. ** Today 88 citizens call this village home. ****
We approached a provincial road sign with its characteristic brown and white color scheme. It announced the turn off leading to Buffalo Pound Provincial Park, the Bison Paddock, and Nicolle Flats Natural Area. “Buffalo Pound” reminds of the method used by indigenous peoples to capture the plains bison. The early inhabitants of this region took advantage of the natural topography as corrals or buffalo pounds. Another way of hunting was to drive the bison over cliffs to kill and harvest the meat for winter survival. At one time 60 million bison roamed the prairies and provided a stable food source. By 1800 bison had disappeared, the Buffalo Pound Valley was no exception. The first settler, Charles Nicolle, established a homestead in 1881 on the southern lake shore. The land was farmed by his descendants until expropriation in 1959 making room for the government’s water expansion project. Ranch and stone house have been integrated into the park.**
“Bison paddock?? Is that place open to the public?” Jim spotted the sign and his interest peaked.
“Yes, the paddock should be accessible. Let’s go and check it out.” Colin turned the wheels of the car a little hard as we exited onto Highway 202. We all leaned into the curve and started to laugh.
Jim and Andrea became more animated. “So, tell us: Why did you move here from the ‘big city’? Are you from here originally? Do you have family here?” Andrea inquired curiously.
“We escaped Calgary when it hit a million people. Saskatchewan sounded like a great option. At the time ads on television were telling us about lower cost of living and better quality of life. We were looking for adventure – we cashed out with the housing boom and moved to the country.” I shared.
“So, don’t you guys work?” Jim was curious.
“I’m retired, Anna is an artist. She teaches all over. It doesn’t really matter where we live.” Colin responded.
We passed around chocolate covered blueberries, and watched for snowy owls on top of power poles along the road while the dark chocolate melted slowly to reveal the tartness of the dried berries. After 20 km we reached the provincial park’s gate house. During winter entry was unrestricted. The access roads were cleared of snow for all-weather campers. We followed the signs to the bison paddock and drove for another 100 meters slowed down by deep icy ruts on the gravel road. The car stopped. Before us the valley opened up. The hills across were illuminated by the late afternoon sun, brush covered escarpments provided a stark contrast against snow covered fields and azure sky.
Andrea and Jim gasped. “Wow – where are we?” Their unanimous question resonated through the car’s interior. The excitement in their voices was contagious and raised everyone’s mood.
Our impromptu travel companions pushed open the doors, jumped out, threw their arms in the air, and shouted “Can you believe this!?” Andrea pulled out her camera and began to click away. “Good thing my Nikon has GPS – nobody at home would believe that this is Saskatchewan.” Colin and I followed, careful not to break the magic of the moment.
The air felt crisp and icy. I felt it travel up my nostrils and cool my throat. Despite the cold it was pleasant to take in unpolluted oxygenated air. Jim reached down to gather up snow to form a snowball. Andrea picked up on Jim’s activity and scooped up a smaller amount with her hands. Colin and I leaned against the car and watched as the couple was unsuccessful in their attempt to start an impromptu snowball fight. With the extreme low temperatures in Saskatchewan we rarely get snow that sticks together, hence the noticeable absence of snowmen.
Watching Andrea and Jim try over and over to shape snowballs made us laugh. When we shared why they could not have a snowball fight they turned on us, kicking up the powdery snow with their feet and scooping it with their hands. We were soon part of this play fight, and watched the snow crystals floating in the air against the blue sky, glistening in the sun. It made everyone forget – 25 C.
On the ice covered lake below fishing shacks had claimed their seasonal spots. A high pitched noise pierced the quiet afternoon. A new fishing hole was getting prepared. Jim squinted and searched for the cause of the noise. Before we identified the location of the ice auger operator a dark spot appeared on the southern horizon, quickly increased in size and rivaled the piercing sound. “Ski-doo!” Andrea pointed in the direction of the fast approaching snow mobile.
“Hey, let’s go and see the buffalo!” Jim turned, brushed loose snow from his parka and slid back into the car. We traveled downhill for a kilometer where we found a barrier closing off access to the paddock five kilometers beyond. “Closed – Authorized Personnel Only” the sign on the barrier read.
“Too bad – I was really getting excited…” Andrea’s voice was full of quiet disappointment. We agreed that it was too late in the day to attempt a hike to the paddock.
We were still passing around my iPhone scrolling through bison pictures taken last October when, without prior warning, the air suddenly filled with deafening fighter jet engine sounds. From the south we detected two dark shapes slicing through the sky. Both pilots were visible in the cockpit as they passed overhead at sonic speed. Their proximity to the valley indicated a training flight that originated from Wing 15, south of Moose Jaw.*****
Jim’s face lit up “Do you guys have special connections, or what?” he shouted over the waning jet noise, waving his arms and jumping into the air with excitement. We had just enough time to shake our heads before the jets returned.
“I never thought…” Jim’s voice trailed off. “Next time I see the weather person skip over Saskatchewan I know better. High five, you guys!”
** Buffalo Pound Provincial Park http://www.saskparks.net/BuffaloPound
^ Buckner, Phillip (2005), “The Last Great Royal Tour: Queen Elizabeth’s 1959 Tour to Canada”, in Buckner, Phillip, Canada and the End of Empire, Vancouver: UBC Press, p. 66, ISBN 0-7748-0915-9, retrieved 24 October 2009
– Display at Moose Jaw Museum